A “non-fiction novel” that takes us far beyond Willie Sutton’s clever one-liners about banks and deeply into his life.
Born in Irish Town in Brooklyn, Willie never quite fit into his own family. His father was a taciturn blacksmith at a time when automobiles were starting to become the rage, and Willie’s brothers had an unaccountable hatred for their younger sibling. Willie was smart and sensitive but came of age during some parlous economic times and considered banks and bankers the symptom of life as a rigged game. Moehringer also depicts Willie as a hopeless romantic who falls deeply in love with Bess Endner, daughter of a rich shipyard owner. After the brief exhilaration of a robbery at the shipyard, abetted by Bess, Willie and his cronies are caught and sentenced to probation, and thus begins a life on the outside of social respectability. By the 1930s, Willie is the most famous bank robber in the country, known in part for his gentility and the way in which he approaches his craft. He’s never loud or violent but instead devoted to artful disguises and making clean and quiet getaways (hence his nickname, the Actor). Not everything works smoothly, of course, for he’s incarcerated for many years, but he ironically becomes something of a folk hero for breaking out of several prisons. His final release, at Christmas in 1969, following a 17-year stretch in the slammer, has him retracing his past in the company of a reporter and photographer. Moehringer cleverly presents the antiphonal voices of Willie in the present (i.e., at the time of his release) and Willie in the past to give a rich accounting of his life, including his love for the works of Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Freud, Jung and Joyce. Whatever else you can say about Willie, in prison he got an excellent education.
A captivating and absorbing read.